With hybrid expertise on the business and healthcare beats, James Ritchie has earned himself job security at a time when journalism keeps changing. “Business journalism is never going away,” he explains. “People need business information to make decisions.” What’s more, Ritchie says, “I have a broad background in covering healthcare; that’s my competitive advantage.”
Ritchie has more than eight years of experience covering healthcare, including medical practices, health IT, insurance companies and hospitals. After working as a staff reporter for the Cincinnati Business Courier, Ritchie became a full-time freelance writer for a variety of media and corporate clients. He continues to write for American City Business Journals in several capacities.
I asked Ritchie about the role of PR in his day to day work as a journalist.
How has journalism changed for you in the last 3 to 5 years?
“The pace has changed. Throughout the media world, you see a lot more short pieces on the web to break or update news. Headlines need to scream, ‘Read me!’ Quite a few stories can be told with infographics and bullet points. It’s harder to get and hold people’s attention, and if you’re planning to write a long narrative piece at many publications the bar is very high. It had better be a remarkably interesting story.
“Of course, it depends on your audience too. In the traditional daily newspaper you have sports, business, news, comics, etc. But now a lot of people are reading about what they’re interested in and tuning out nearly everything else. If I own a restaurant, I’ll read a trade publication on restaurants. And if you’re writing on business and particularly in specialized areas – in my case, usually healthcare – you’re more likely to publish the stories of 700 words or more, because the audience is hooked by virtue of the topic.
“But there’s still no room to be boring.”
What makes a great story?
“What I’m going for is something inherently useful to the reader. They’ll take the information and do something with it; it’s not a passing interest.
“There are a lot of ways to tell good stories. News today is often recursive, where one outlet is quoting – and linking to – another. If you can show your readers something interesting or useful in that way then you’ve done them a service. For investigative stories, you often see data journalism, where you’re trying to pick out trends from a big data set. If you can analyze the databases, you can tell stories that you couldn’t have gotten to in the past.
“But there’s still a place for going out and looking people in the eye and getting stories. We have to be careful not to move too far away from that. You need humans to tell the stories.”
How often do you deal with PR professionals?
“Quite a lot. There are many cases where PR people help me to get in touch with executives, physicians or other sources in their organizations. And I listen to their pitches as long as they’re relevant to something I might write.
“Of course, you can’t respond to everything. A healthcare reporter shows up on all kinds of lists. When I was in a staff reporter job, I would probably get 200 emails a day. But most of them wouldn’t be relevant to me. They may have personalized the email with my name, but it was going to a whole lot of people. One time I got a pitch about a health screening van in a parking lot in Montana. I would delete that.
“Things that are pitched to me specifically, I read.
“I like Help A Reporter Out (HARO); I put queries out. If it’s a hot topic you get a lot of response both from PR contacts and directly from sources.”
What can PR people do to improve their relationship with you?
“Probably the main thing is to focus on the person-to-person relationship. Build a social bond. You might not be best friends, but you can position yourself so your email gets read. Send a sentence or two. Say, ‘I have a story I think you might like.’
“If you can provide an exclusive story that’s in line with what the publication does, that helps. Journalists work hard for exclusives. If a PR person says, ‘I’m going to give this to you first,’ that’s of interest. Barring that, at least bring a new angle.”
Do you value the PR-Journalism relationship?
I value the relationship. If you call an executive at a hospital or large company, in many cases they’ll refer you back to a PR person. The PR person can often get you the access you need. The second thing: They’re there, and people internally are feeding them stories that you might not hear about otherwise.”
James Ritchie image: provided by James Ritchie